By Theresa Hogue
Concert pianist and OSU music professor Rachelle McCabe had been collaborating with philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore for more than a decade when she found herself in the audience of one of Moore’s climate-change talks in 2014. Moore was challenging everyone to step up and take action against environmental degradation and the destruction of species. McCabe, who had previously set some of Moore’s writings to classical-music pieces, was so moved by Moore’s challenge that she leapt to her feet at the conclusion and stopped Moore in the aisle.
“I said ‘I need to work with you on this,’” McCabe says. A month later, the two met to talk about how their previous collaborations could expand into something much bigger. After considering various approaches, McCabe hit upon a favorite piece of music that she felt was perfectly suited to a discussion about extinction and safeguarding the Earth’s abundance.
The piece, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42, is in large part a deeply dark and lonely work, at times almost a lament, but with a compelling sense of purpose and eventually, a glimmer of hope. “The music,” says McCabe, “lends itself to anger and frustration and resolution.”
The project that evolved from their discussion — A Call to Life: Variations on a Theme of Extinction — combines musical performance with spoken word. Moore and McCabe have performed it up and down the West Coast and as far abroad as Hawaii and Calgary. Everywhere they go, audiences are moved to tears, and often, to taking direct action against the extinction of species and the onward progress of habitat destruction. And in the face of a changing political climate, the artist and philosopher are determined that their message is more important than ever.
When McCabe played the Rachmaninoff piece to Moore, they poured over every aspect, as McCabe talked about how each portion of the piece made her feel, and how that might translate into a call to action. Moore, in response, began writing a narrative to accompany the composition, and the two flowed together organically.
“Rachelle played it many times, and I would sit here and listen, and we’d just look at each other and try not to cry,” Moore says. “It was clear to me that this was music about loss. I said this is going to be a piece about extinction, about irretrievable loss. And we knew it also had to be a call to action, because you cannot dwell on tragedy when there’s still a chance to avert it.”
And although the languages of music and philosophy at first seem far removed, they found translation easy. “Rachelle does see the world through music,” Moore adds, “so when something comes into her mind it’s transformed into music.”
Quickly the project took shape, and their first presentation was at the Corvallis-Benton County Library, to a packed house. They were both nervous about the reception but immediately sensed that their message was getting across.
“They absolutely were moved,” McCabe recalls. “I looked out a couple times to see their eyes. You can tell when a group is engaged.”
“They were frozen, and they were weeping, and then when it was over, they stood up and they roared,” says Moore. “And then so many of them came up afterward and they all said two things to us: ‘You’ve got to get this out farther than Corvallis’ and ‘Tell me what to do.’”
Call to Life directly tells participants what to do, once they determine what it is that they love too much to lose. Audience members receive dozens of suggestions on how to halt the extinction of species. “There are three things I talk about,” Moore says. “I can stop making it worse. I can protect, create and restore habitat. I can imagine new human life-ways.”
Call to Action
Braced by the success of their first performance, Moore and McCabe found ways to take their show on the road. “We were astonished and maybe a little bit frightened at the power of this,” Moore says. “You stand up in front of a large group, and you really don’t know what will happen. We were taken aback by people’s response to this.”
They visited a village in Alaska, a huge conference in Hawaii, as well as Calgary, Washington, California, Illinois and Arizona. And at each location, they found the same emotional reaction.
“We say that we want to open people’s hearts without breaking them,” says Moore. “People are so emotionally taken by it, suddenly they allow themselves to understand, to actually see. They knew this all along, but it opens their hearts into this direct perception. The ideas ride the music the way spindrift rides the waves.”
And audience members started taking action. In Arizona, a woman told them, “When we go to a lecture my brain is filled. But today I feel my heart is filled as well.” A man from Illinois spontaneously decided to turn his property into a wildlife sanctuary. And a young pianist, feeling adrift, pledged to hold concerts as fundraisers for environmental causes. He keeps McCabe updated on his progress.
Following the recent presidential election and what McCabe and Moore see as a deepening backlash against the science of climate change, they’ve become more dedicated to getting their message across. While they’re conscious of the carbon cost of air travel and are limited by the financial costs as well, they’ve made their collaboration available online with help from Eric Gleske in Information Services at Oregon State. The presentation includes a video and a study guide. Their hope is that people will organize viewing parties with friends, neighbors and colleagues and then collaborate to make their own changes in the world.
“We really want to bring people to this work,” Moore adds. “We’re just now beginning to think that through. You can’t have people practically pounding on you to get this out to the world and not feel a real compulsion to do that.”
Above all, Moore and McCabe want to elevate the discussion on habitat destruction and environmental degradation from a place of doom and gloom to a place where individuals feel that they can still make a difference. “Out of death there is a ray of hope,” McCabe says. “Life continues. That’s the hopeful outcome Kathy always has in her writing. This is not the end, there’s more.”
Performance Set for April 7 at the LaSells Stewart Center
McCabe and Moore will give an encore presentation of “A Call to Life” at the LaSells Stewart Center’s Austin Auditorium at 7 p.m., April 7. The event will include a panel of researchers and science teachers who will discuss extinction and the astounding diversity of species.
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